Arlington County will have 1,300 more middle school students by 2019 than it has today and — if nothing is done — not enough classrooms to put them in, according to county school officials.
Like many Northern Virginia school systems, Arlington’s student population is growing rapidly. This year, enrollment increased an unprecedented 5.2 percent, exceeding the district’s projections by 300 students. Two of the high-
performing system’s middle schools are over capacity.
With an increasingly dense suburban community, Arlington’s school system faces the challenge of accommodating future middle school students in a limited number of facilities while staying within a tight capital budget. Figuring out where to squeeze in extra students has been a tedious balancing act, weighing the interests of neighbors fearful of extra traffic against parents and students who worry about crammed classrooms and longer bus rides.
The School Board recently signed off on a funding plan that would create more middle school seats, but it chose not to spell out where or how those seats would be added.
The county is considering about a half-dozen options for dealing with the overcrowding, each involving a combination of adding on to existing middle schools and building a new school on one of three sites. The plan must add approximately 1,300 more seats by 2019, all for $126 million or less.
Nearly all of the options have elicited strong opinions, creating a sometimes-contentious debate that reflects the challenges of a community that is outgrowing its 26 square miles.
“It’s really contentious because there are so many different stakeholder groups, neighborhoods and school communities and so on, that are involved,” said John Chadwick, assistant superintendent of facilities and operations. “It’s understandable that people would be at odds over something like this. . . . We’ve never before taken on or had the scope of issues we had to deal with now.”
Many of the proposals involve moving the treasured H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program — founded in 1971 to allow students more autonomy — from a building on Vacation Lane that it has occupied since its inception. Woodlawn is in an area of the county that is in dire need of middle school seats and where land is highly valuable, so many residents support turning it into a neighborhood school to relieve overcrowding. Nearby Williamsburg Middle School has nine trailers to deal with the overflow. At Swanson Middle School, students share lockers.
But the idea of moving Woodlawn has made some of its ardent supporters uncomfortable. For some, the building itself is a deep part of the school’s legacy, bearing the signatures and art of students on its walls.
“There’s so much history,” John Barnes, a Woodlawn sixth-grader, told School Board members at a meeting Tuesday. “All that history will be torn down.”
He worried, too, about construction noise that would come with a new site. Students could move to a new location — perhaps in Rosslyn, where the school system controls a building that could house the school — before the complex is done. His mother, Ellie Halpern, expressed concerns about the lack of field space that would come with such a location.
“We don’t need a palace,” she said. “But the kids . . . do deserve a regulation-size field,” she said.
One option called for building a middle school at the Rosslyn location, but parents rejected that idea.
The school system also has considered moving Woodlawn to the Reed-Westover Building, which houses a county library and pre-kindergarten programs a little more than two miles west of Woodlawn’s current location. That idea was shelved because of vocal opposition and a Change.org petition signed by nearly 1,200 people.
Last week, Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy endorsed a version of the plan that calls for shifting Woodlawn to Rosslyn. The Stratford Program, for children with special needs, also would move to the Rosslyn building, and a pre-kindergarten center could free up classrooms in nearby elementary schools.
The building Woodlawn and Stratford occupy would be renovated to become a middle school for 1,000 students, school officials said. An additional 300 middle school seats would have to be created through renovations at existing middle schools.
Murphy called that option “in the best interest of our future community.”
“I also think this addresses many of the things that we have heard with the neighborhood surrounding Stratford in relation to future students,” he said.
The School Board is scheduled to vote on a plan Dec. 18.
Murphy’s endorsement comes after months of debate that reflects the challenges of a growing community.
The school system had been expecting an enrollment decline as late as 2007, when the numbers suddenly swung in the opposite direction. Now the district is on track to break enrollment records. To deal with overcrowding, the school system has 121 portable classrooms.
Abby Raphael, who has been on the School Board since 2008, said that in the early days of the upswing, the school system opted not to invest in new buildings until it was certain it was not just a population “blip.” Instead, it reconfigured schools, redrew enrollment boundaries and used portable classrooms to fit more students.
“We’re past the conversation where you can move students around because you have excess capacity,” she said. “It’s clear we need to add permanent space.”
Ellen Farrell has three children in Arlington Public Schools. She attended an event last month at Williamsburg Middle School to hear officials discuss the options. A design team set up renderings of models to show what a new middle school might look like.
Eyeing what appeared to be an elegant rendering in the school gym, she called all the plans “fine” and said she just wanted the school system to do something — and soon. Her middle son attends class in a portable classroom and she doesn’t want her youngest child, a third-grader, to face that when he enters middle school.
“The School Board has known there’s been a problem for years and they’ve not acted,” Farrell said. “Everyone is going to suffer if we don’t have additional seats for our kids.”
The growth — and the debate about how to manage it — is expected to continue. Today’s graduating senior class is about 1,000 students smaller than the county’s kindergarten class, Murphy said.
“How do we balance green space? How do we balance community areas such as parks? How do we put that lifestyle all in place with our strong value of public education?” he said. “I think there is the need for a longer view and greater comprehensive planning.”